Window on WANs

Jun 16 2009   2:11PM GMT

Reading the writing on the WAN wall

Tim Scannell Profile: TScannell

One of the more vexing issues facing network managers today is how to cost effectively tweak a WAN to keep up with the rising number of remote workers and increasing reliance on branch office activities and technology capabilities.

On the one hand, companies are trying to centralize IT and network operations to maintain costs and simplify operations. On the other, there is an effort to provide more operational autonomy to branch offices, as they become the ‘frontline’ conduits for mission critical information and access to customers and suppliers.

This is an issue we continue to cover in the digital pages of, most recently in an article that looks at the trend to avoid costly WAN appliances in favor of WAN virtualization and software, and in profiles of major global companies like Carhartt, Inc., which is taking an “old school” but nonetheless successful approach, and deploying optimization appliances at critical branch offices.

Deploying technology solutions at branch offices has always created some tension between IT and the business bean counters — especially if you are dealing with a lot of divisions. It is an even more sensitive issue today, as the economy struggles to return to at least the bronze days of yesteryear. The rules of engagement in this struggle have changed quite a bit over the past year or two, which makes it a lot tougher to sell the need for more remote WAN speed and performance to upper management.

A study released by The Aberdeen Group last month revealed that 43% of the 308 organizations polled by the research company pointed to total cost of ownership (TOC) as a top goal in evaluating technology solutions — including those that filter down to the branch offices. Ease of deployment (31%) and data security (32%) took a backseat to an overall reduction in WAN traffic (41%) and scalability (34%) as top motivators — surprising, given all of the attention on securing networks and protecting sensitive data as opposed to just saving a few bucks.

One other recent article about MPLS, Ethernet services key as network usage evolves on, the first in a series authored by an analyst from another research group, points to a growing reliance on MPLS in networks as a way to:

  • Provide guaranteed performance for real-time, IP-based applications, such as voice and video;
  • Flatten networks away from hub and spoke designs
  • Save money

WAN optimization vendors like Expand Networks have also recognized the increasing trend to cut costs in branch offices, while improving network connections, and has developed a software approach to costly hardware fixes at local offices and remote sites.

Not everyone is convinced, though, especially when it comes to newer approaches. The Aberdeen report notes that while 85% of the companies polled reported an increase in WAN traffic over the past 12 months, only 43% of these firms actually went ahead and increased the capacity of their networks to handle this increased load.  Rather than investing in raw bandwidth capacity, these organizations are relying on application acceleration, data compression, and other network optimization tools to make better use of their existing network resources squeeze out more QoS and performance, notes Aberdeen communications research editor Hyoun Park.

“Best-in-Class companies are maximizing their current network resource utilization, but they are prioritizing and optimizing applications, as well as using multiple application delivery functionalities and services on a single device,” says Park.  ” It’s less about completely tightening the belt and more about owning tools that are cheaper and more effective than simply purchasing more bandwidth.”

This last point is a wake-up call for networking solutions vendors — especially those that dabble in WAN optimization and acceleration techniques. A lot of companies are asking some hard questions about the necessity to throw expensive technology at a problem, especially when those problems may exist in remote branch offices. Rather, they are searching for tools and tips that help them get the most from their current systems, delivering an immediate cost benefit and an even longer amortization formula for their hardware investments.

WAN solutions vendors that do not see the handwriting on the wall may be heading for a crash as the demand for duplicate solutions and system fades and more emphasis is put on making current networks more streamlined and effective. A less is more mentality not only makes good business sense, but could be the technology mantra for some time to come.

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